Justin Trudeau’s Government Sharpens Criticism of China

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In 2015, just weeks after he was made prime minister and had formed his cabinet, Justin Trudeau was at the Group of 20 leaders’ summit meeting in Turkey. His trip was notable for the mutual admiration he and China’s leader, Xi Jinping, expressed for each other.

But before heading off to attend the G20 summit in Bali next week, Mr. Trudeau offered a much different take on China.

He was responding to a Global News report that the cabinet had been told by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service that at least 11 candidates in the last federal election had been secretly funded by China.

“Unfortunately we’re seeing that countries, state actors from around the world, whether it’s China or others, are continuing to play aggressive games with our institutions, with our democracies,” Mr. Trudeau told reporters. “The world is changing, and sometimes in quite scary ways, and we need to make sure that those who are tasked with keeping us safe every single day are able to do that.”

But the criticism of China didn’t end there. Later in the week, Mélanie Joly, the foreign minister, called China an “increasingly disruptive global power.”

She also had a warning.

“What I would like to say to Canadians doing business in and with China: You need to be cleareyed,” Ms. Joly said. “As Canada’s top diplomat, my job is to tell you that there are geopolitical risks linked to doing business with the country.”

Also this week, François-Philippe Champagne, the industry minister, ordered three Chinese companies to divest their ownership stakes in Canadian companies that mine lithium and other scarce, increasingly in-demand minerals for things like electric car batteries.

Mr. Trudeau came to office promising to repair relations with China. Under Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative government, those relations had become badly frayed to, in the view of many in Canada’s business community, the detriment of trade relations.

But the current government’s reversal on relations with China has been firmly entrenched since December 2018, when the Chinese government jailed Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig, two Canadians in China, shortly after Canada had arrested Meng Wanzhou, a Chinese telecommunications executive, in Vancouver, at the request of the United States government.

During the 1,030-day standoff that followed, Mr. Trudeau and his cabinet ministers were circumspect when it came to criticizing China, apparently fearing that it might endanger the two Canadians. But after the hostage-taking ended, the government has been gradually building up to a more aggressive stance.

Last month in Washington, Chrystia Freeland, the deputy prime minister and finance minister, called on democracies to break with countries ruled by autocratic governments and to move toward trading with each other, an idea often called “friendshoring.”

Also in Washington last month, Mr. Champagne said that Canada wanted “a decoupling, certainly from China, and I would say other regimes in the world which don’t share the same values.”

Global concern about China escalated last month when Mr. Xi used the Communist Party Congress to give himself near-absolute power while indicating that security of the state, rather than economic matters, was the nation’s priority.

My colleague Li Yuan wrote in the New New World column this week that members of China’s business community increasingly were no longer willing to turn a blind eye to Mr. Xi’s grasp on power and that they fear what might be coming.

[Read: China’s Business Elite See the Country That Let Them Thrive Slipping Away]

Tripp Mickle, Chang Che and Daisuke Wakabayashi also looked into how Apple’s relationship with China, where inexpensive manufacturing turned Apple into the world’s most valuable corporation, had become a liability.

[Read: Apple Built Its Empire With China. Now Its Foundation Is Showing Cracks.]

In her speech this week, Ms. Joly announced that Canada would soon release a new strategy for Indo-Pacific relations. While she offered no details, there is speculation that Mr. Trudeau may reveal parts of it over the next few days at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting in Thailand or at the G20 summit.

There certainly has been no shortage of advice to the government as it develops the plan.

Adam Fisher, the director general of intelligence assessments at the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, told a House of Commons committee last week that “without a doubt China is the foremost aggressor” in the world when it comes to interfering with and “corrupting” other nations’ political systems.

He told lawmakers that China was “interested in working within the system to corrupt it, compromising officials, elected officials and individuals at all levels of government, within industry, within civil society, using our open and free society for their nefarious purposes.”


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A native of Windsor, Ontario, Ian Austen was educated in Toronto, lives in Ottawa and has reported about Canada for The New York Times for the past 16 years. Follow him on Twitter at @ianrausten.


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